Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
The javelina, otherwise known as the collared peccary, musk hog, or tayaussa, is the only wild, native, piglike animal living in the United States. The name “javelina” is derived from the Spanish word for javelin or sword. One look at this animal’s razor-sharp tusks and you’ll know why.
By whatever name you choose to call them, these beasts range widely through the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts of southwestern Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, as well as southward through Central America and into northern Argentina. In the United States, herds occur in saguaro deserts, preferring mesquite habitats with an abundance of prickly pear cacti. They also occur in semi-desert canyons, cliffs, and watering holes near chaparral plants and oak trees.
Farther south, however, in Central and South America, they occupy a wider range of habitats. There, they live in both wet and dry rain forests, as well as grasslands and deciduous forests.
Although javelinas are often mistaken for wild pigs, they are not in the same family. Javelinas are smaller, with longer legs and only three toes on their rear feet. They also have tusks that point downward, unlike feral pigs, whose tusks are curled.
During our many travels through the Southwest, our only firsthand experiences with javelinas occurred in the southern Arizona desert. So, it was quite a surprise for us to see a couple of javelina herds during our recent vacation to central Arizona’s Red Rock country. One band roamed through a well-vegetated area along the Verde River (viewed at a distance from a train); the other appeared to have taken up residence at an elegant resort just outside of Sedona. (Perhaps someone told them about the restaurant’s excellent breakfasts.) The javelinas apparently frequented that area often, since we stood little more than 20 feet away and the animals showed no apprehension. They weren’t bothered, and neither were we.
These animals looked pretty much like the ones we were familiar with in Tucson. They stand approximately two feet tall and twice that long, and weigh between 35 and 60 pounds.
Javelinas living in the wild, with uncertain food and water resources and the presence of predators “” coyotes, bobcats, and human hunters “” can expect to live for about a decade or so. In captivity, where they are protected and have regular meals “” plus veterinary help when needed “” javelinas have been known to live for 25 years.
In the winter, javelinas are active during the day in order to take advantage of the sun’s heat and then rest in caves or self-dug holes at night. During the summer months, they eat in the early morning and evening, and devote the hottest hours to resting in the shade.
Javelinas are social animals, traveling in packs that range from six to 30 “” usually a dozen. It’s an exclusive club made up of family members only. They don’t seem to have a particular group leader; however, the males usually boss the rest of the herd. They communicate among themselves in several different ways. Their calls denote aggression, submission, and alertness. Numerous other vocalizations have been recorded, ranging from snorts, squeals, barks, and rumbling growls.
Members of the species have very poor eyesight and may not see another animal until it’s very close. To make up for this sensory deficit, they have excellent hearing and a very good sense of smell. They’re also good runners and have been clocked at speeds of more than 20 miles per hour.
Javelinas have a powerful musk gland on the top of their rumps that serves as another form of communication. Their odor is always apparent, even more so when they are excited. As the saying goes, “You’ll smell a javelina before you see it.” Our experience with these animals also told us that you can still smell a javelina hours after it’s been gone.
As territorial animals, javelinas will mark rocks, tree trunks, and stumps with their scent to ward off interlopers. Should the warning be ignored, javelinas fend off adversaries first by flattening their ears and clattering their canines. If this fighting stance doesn’t convince the interloper to retreat, a javelina will charge head on, bite, and occasionally lock jaws on the intruder. For the most part, javelinas will not fight, but they certainly know how to protect themselves when confronted.
Javelinas are primarily herbivorous, with complex stomachs for digesting coarsely chewed food. In the northern range, collared peccaries eat fibrous foods such as roots, bulbs, beans, nuts, berries, grass, and cacti. The dietary staples of this species are the fleshy leaves and stalks of agaves and the pads of prickly pears.
The dominant male does virtually all the breeding within the pack, an act that occurs throughout the year, depending on the climate. More young are born in rainy years. Females usually give birth to two offspring after a gestation period of nearly five months.
Birthing mothers retreat from the herd for a day to prevent the newborns from being eaten by other group members, and then rejoin the group. The mothers do permit the young’s older sisters to help her raise her offspring. After two or three months of nursing, the young are weaned. They don’t have an extended adolescence “” both male and female offspring reach sexual maturity in a year, give or take a month or two.
Javelinas are not dangerous when left alone, but a herd may attack if one of them is wounded or pursued. If you are walking your dog and encounter a pack of javelinas, stay a safe distance away. These critters are speedy and agile enough to drive off the dog, and your pet will usually be the worse off for the experience.
Like bears and other mammals, javelinas lose their fear of humans when fed by humans. They’ll rummage around campsites much like raccoons and skunks and in some places are becoming an urban menace.
To observe javelinas, look for feeding areas of cacti and succulents during the cooler hours of the day. You’ll know whether they’ve been around. They don’t just snap off a leaf or cactus pad; they grab an entire mouthful and pull, leaving the stringy inner structure behind.
When you find a good spot, stand or sit quietly. Make sure you’re downwind from where you expect to see the herd, and be patient. Javelinas are slow-moving, casual animals, and not threatening unless alarmed. And they’re a fascinating species to watch.